Kindlegold: Psychic Evangelists and Giant Helmets

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

I’ve put out not just one but two articles dissing the sort of stuff I’ve been picking up on my Kindle, so you might come away with the idea that I don’t like the gadget. The fact is, it’s been my favourite toy all year, but a lot of the material I’ve read on it I generally haven’t flagged as being something I read in a digital format. A lot of that is material I’d have been glad to read on paper but which I read on Kindle simply because it was easier, more convenient, or cheaper to do so.

However, occasionally I do in fact come across something which odds are I wouldn’t have ready if I couldn’t pick it up cheap (or free) on Kindle and end up really enjoying. If the stuff that blows into my Kindle by chance and which I discard on a whim is Kindlefluff, the stuff which I keep hold of is Kindlegold. Here’s some of it.

The Trinity Game

I bought this for £1.99 expecting it to be mere Kindlefluff but it’s actually one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read for ages. Sean Chercover’s The Trinity Game opens with a note that the Vatican shut down the Office of the Devil’s Advocate – the department in charge of debunking fraudulent miracles – in 1983, but then glibly asserts that this isn’t actually the case. This immediately informs us that we are in tinfoil hat conspiracy thriller territory, and the story we are presented with is appropriately ludicrous. Our hero, Daniel Byrne, is an agent of the ODA, which operates an awful lot like the FBI in a Vatican which operates an awful lot like the way the American alphabet soup intelligence agency network operates in cheesy action movies. He’s one of their top agents, having taken on over 700 cases and debunked every single one. His complete inability to locate any miracles whatsoever may raise doubts as to the strength of his faith, but nobody can deny that he’s got a knack for cutting through bullshit.

That’s why his superior, Father Nick, thinks he’s the ideal person to investigate sleazy televangelist Tim Trinity – that, and Tim is Daniel’s uncle who raised him like a father, and who Daniel disowned and ran out on after he realised that Tim’s whole televangelist act was an insincere scam from start to finish. Tim, it seems, has updated his act recently: speaking in tongues was always a part of the deal, but he’s changed the way he does it. Whereas before it was fakey improvised nonsense interspersed throughout his entire sermon, this time the tongues come in short, intense bursts, and the style is different too – Tim’s uttering sounds people really oughtn’t be able to pronounce, sounds which turn out to be perfectly pronounced English at 66.6% of normal speed reversed (including syllables which you shouldn’t be able to pronounce backwards even if you’re Michael J. Anderson). Oh, and when he speaks in tongues, he makes predictions about the future.

Daniel’s task is to debunk Tim and go home. What his superiors don’t realise is that he’s going to do his due diligence on the transcripts of Tim’s backmasked speech – and when he does so he realises that not only is Tim making predictions about the future, but his predictions come true every time, and his superiors didn’t want him to know that. Both Daniel and Julia, his former lover from before he joined the priesthood who as a journalist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune gets drawn into the case, soon find themselves convinced that Tim has got some sort of hotline to the future – and later events make it clear that powerful forces want him shut up. The Mafia want him gone to protect their sports betting rackets. Two separate globe-spanning conspiracies who both use the Vatican as a front are manipulating Daniel’s investigation to further their ancient war in the shadows. Whilst Daniel would dearly love to let the phenomenon become something which bolsters and nourishes his faith, as Julia points out predictions of the future do not necessarily imply the existence of a God – there might be some sort of sufficiently advanced technology deal going on. And Tim himself is making curious pronouncements, and pushing the idea that faith isn’t actually important at all. It all gets very silly very quickly, building up to a climactic sermon by Tim in the heart of New Orleans.

So, yes, it’s all very silly but I liked it a lot more than Angels and Demons. Part of this is because Chercover does seem to be making a good faith effort to not be horrifyingly offensive. For instance, there’s a part where Tim and Daniel end up taking part in a voodoo ritual which seems related to whatever the hell is happening to Tim somehow, but whereas in the hands of Dan Brown this would lead to horrible, horrible fail both in terms of demonising and exotifying people and at the same time throwing in outright inaccuracies, it does seem that Chercover has properly done his research, and the way he writes the voodoo practices makes them seem like something which at once is quite outside Tim and Daniel’s prior experience but at the same time it doesn’t seem scary or weird or exotic so much as a normal thing which normal people might get into.

In fact, the point of the scene does seem to be to indicate that whatever it is which is transmitting messages through Tim doesn’t particularly care about the distinctions between religious practices. Chercover doesn’t give us the full picture of what exactly is happening to Tim, but towards the end of the book the general thrust of the narrative takes the stance that the actual form of religious devotion doesn’t matter, to the point where it doesn’t even matter whether you are religious at all, and that the powers working through Tim are trying to spread the Bill and Ted ethical axiom of “Be excellent to each other”. This is something which is probably going to be mildly offensive to people who are genuinely committed to the idea that works without faith is rubbish and you’ll go to hell if you don’t believe the right thing, but I think there’s few ways to write a religiously-themed thriller with supernatural aspects in a way which is going to be compatible with all readers’ beliefs. Ultimately, Chercover plumps for an appeal to secularism (in the sense of different religions and philosophies finding ways to coexist in peace rather than the sense of being rude about religion because you read a Richard Dawkins book) which sits in opposition to the worldview of the priests Daniel ends up butting heads with who tend to see the world as a battlefield between religions who cannot coexist. Chercover even provides plenty of space for the reader to imagine that Tim isn’t actually being contacted by God at all but doesn’t make a call one way or another, so he seems to be about as respectful of readers’ differing beliefs as he can be whilst still being able to tell the story he wants to tell.

Despite Chercover’s research there’s some points where the motivations ascribed to various groups just don’t make sense if you know more than a smattering of information about them. For instance, Daniel is berated by one of the more Machiavellian priests he encounters for his failure to find any miracles and his refusal to turn a blind eye to fakes for the sake of power politics. In fact, any real life cynical Vatican powermonger would most likely love the fact that Daniel has a 100% debunking rate, because historically speaking lone miracle-workers and mystics have tended represented trouble for the Church authorities. Sure, maybe in some cases like the people involved can more or less be shepherded along by the Church, but in general people who get big followings through miracles tend to represent a concentration of power outside the Church hierarchy, a concept the politicians of the Church have never been especially comfortable with. At the same time, Chercover’s departures from reality didn’t annoy me the way Dan Brown’s did because at no point does Chercover straight-facedly imply that the world actually works like this; in particular, his depiction of the Catholic Church is so blatantly counterfactual (they have ops rooms to rival the ones the CIA have in the Bourne movies, for crying out loud), that it just can’t be taken seriously.

The overall effect, in fact, is that of Dan Brown and Matthew Reilly brainstorming a plot, and then hiring Chercover to write the thing. His prose style is not jaw-droppingly beautiful, but it’s brisk and keeps you turning the pages and that’s all you really need for this sort of story. If you want to see what would happen if you mashed up Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and Father Ted, look no further. The conclusion suggests that Chercover might be planning on doing a sequel some day – I hope it’s soon if that’s the case.

The Castle of Otranto

I can think of few texts to compare Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to except for the Nicolle brothers’ Axe Cop. Both stories maintain a breakneck pace throughout, shunning conventional ideas about pacing in favour of bombarding the reader with event after event in rapid succession. Both stories involve a swathe of supernatural occurrences which are just kind of goofy, many of which appear to have been made up on the spot. Both stories scorn deep characterisation in favour of presenting a cast of stereotypes turned up to 11. Both are hilarious because they come across as a story breathlessly narrated by an overexcited 5 year old.

Within the first pages of Otranto, the carefully arranged marriage of Isabella, daughter of Frederic, Marquis of Vicenza, to Conrad, son of Manfred, has been disrupted. Conrad’s marriage to Isabella was supposed to firm up Manfred’s claim over the Principality of Otranto, which Frederic’s family also has a claim to and passed into Manfred’s family after the death of the renowned Alfonso during the Crusades.

So far, so Crusader Kings 2. However, the wedding’s off – not because either party has cold feet, though Isabella isn’t thrilled about this and kind of wishes Frederic would come back from his travels so he can take her away from Manfred’s influence. No, it’s actually Conrad who can’t make it to the altar, due to a giant helmet falling out of the sky and squashing him. Manfred, after grieving for about a minute, takes decisive action: mindful of the prophecy that his line would lose Otranto once its rightful owner becomes too big for the castle and once his family runs out of male heirs, he decides there’s only one thing to do: divorce Hippolita, his wife, who’s not likely to bear him any more children, and swipe Isabella for himself.

From there on, the action gets sillier and more melodramatic with every page. No conversation occurs which isn’t replete with either comical misunderstandings, melodramatic revelations, or both. The manifestations of the supernatural are so outlandishly surreal or deliberately silly (the most low-key one involves a statue getting a nosebleed) that it’s impossible to take them seriously, whilst the more realistic parts of the novel involve characters so cartoonish and plots so over-the-top that they end up resembling a pantomime.

The silliness of the text may well be deliberate. For the first edition, Walpole trolled the literary world by issuing it under a pseudonym and claiming it was a translation of a genuine medieval text; consequently, it’s hard not to see it as a parody of some kind. Part of the motivation of the parody might be anti-Catholic; the original introduction has a mild “lol, Catholics, they’re so silly they believe shit like this is real” tone to it, though to be honest if Walpole wanted to create an anti-Catholic screed he hasn’t done a brilliant job. For one thing, the “THIS IS WHAT CATHOLICS ACTUALLY BELIEVE” thing only really works if you assume that Catholic literature hasn’t advanced since the Middle Ages and that supernatural events in medieval literature have no metaphorical or allegorical angle to them. Whilst some of Walpole’s readers may have believed precisely that, to adopt such a position you need to be precisely as gullible as the introduction claims Catholics are.

Moreover, in the text itself the Church actually comes off remarkably well compared to, say, The Monk. The most prominent priest, Jerome, may have scandalous secrets to reveal and might be somewhat weak-willed, but he’s faced with genuine moral quandaries where whatever action he takes would represent a mild betrayal of somebody, and he’s never really unsympathetic. The actual institutions of the Church are, if anything, even more kindly treated than Jerome is: the local convents both provide a place of sanctuary for the fleeing Isabella and a convenient place for Manfred and Hippolita to retire to at the end of the novel, and when Jerome’s fellow monks act in concert they’re usually a force for good, bringing uncomfortable truths to light and generally helping pushing things to a happy ending.

It could be that Walpole was writing so deeply in-character as a devout medieval Catholic that he couldn’t paint the Church in a harsher light without breaking character here. However, even if this were the case some of his authorial decisions seem bizarre if his intent was really to make Catholicism look bad. There’s a bit where Manfred is conversing with Jerome and trying to convince him to give him a Church-sanctioned divorce from Hippolita, and Jerome prevaricates, and then Manfred insists that it’s vital to the safety and security of the realm that he have a son and Hippolita isn’t cutting it in that department, plus she was originally betrothed to another so the marriage is of dubious legality anyway. The parallels with Henry VIII’s reasons for divorcing Catherine of Aragon are blindingly obvious, and if you really thought England’s break from Rome was a good thing which saved us all from tyrannous Popery it seems peculiar to amp up the cruelty and nefariousness of someone who’s Henrying it up to such an extent.

Then again, bigotry and hipocrisy do go hand in hand a lot of the time. It’s entirely possible that Walpole really did intend to give the story an anti-Catholic slant; all I’m saying here is that if he did, he didn’t do a very good job of it, and if you skip the introduction you’d barely notice it.

Walpole’s other declared reason for writing the book, as he set forth in the introduction to a later edition, also doesn’t work – at least, not to modern eyes. He claims that he was trying to blend the fantastic elements of medieval literature with the more naturalistic and realistic aspects of then-contemporary writing. The problem with this claim is that – at least to modern eyes – much of the realistic stuff is highly comedic as well. Supposedly the serving staff at the castle are generally considered to be the comic relief in the novel in a Shakespeare kind of way, though I don’t entirely buy it since they don’t seem much sillier than the main characters. The comic timing of so many supposedly serious interactions is so consistently good that I find it hard to believe it is unintentional, and characters talk at cross-purposes so frequently that it’s hard as the reader not to be amused, especially since you are more or less always more clued-in than they are; even the climactic murder committed by Manfred feels more like a morbid joke than a moment of grimdark horror.

The major stylistic or thematic link I can connect with The Monk is a youth vs. elders dynamic, with the youth far and away being the more sympathetic side, to the extent that if the older generation left the youth alone everything would be alright. This is most apparent when Frederic decides to set aside his beef with Manfred when Manfred proposes that they marry each others’ daughters, but also crops up when you get to Hippolita being so incredibly wet she needs Jerome to cajole her into mustering any sort of resistance to Manfred’s plans, and the elder generation in general fucking about with the romantic ambitions of the younger characters. Even here, though, the general “the old fuck life up for the young” message comes across more as farce than tragedy.

Although the book doesn’t really succeed at its declared aims, it’s still a pleasure to actually read, provided you set aside your assumptions about the Gothic novel before starting. The anti-Catholic agenda of the genre it unleashed on the world is either not present or too incoherently expressed to really offer much offense; likewise, whilst many of the stock characters and pet themes of the Gothic novel were set here, the tone is far more frivolous and silly than its imitators. It’s as if an entire fictional genre arose out of people saying “Well, I like The Castle of Otranto, but I wish it were a little less silly” – personally, I think it’s fine as it is. I probably wouldn’t pay actual money for it, but thanks to it being out of copyright for centuries it’s free on Kindle, and as far as free comedic fantasy novellas go it’s better than most.